The ArtsGrandfather of ghoulishness
Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey
Through Oct. 31 at Orlando Museum of Art
2416 N. Mills Ave.
Once in a while, artwork mirrors the vast gulf between our culture today and how it was even a few short decades ago. Such is the art of Edward Gorey (1925-2000), whose children’s books and drawings brought lightness to dark themes in the 1950s and ’60s in a way that delighted and titillated – a sort of children’s Edgar Allen Poe. At the Orlando Museum of Art, the robust collection of 170 objects from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust now on exhibit reveals his genius and talent, yet it acts as a cracked mirror to reflect the creepiness that infects so much of pop culture today. We seem to be slipping into Gorey’s morbid world, where charming drawings turn ugly and mean, magnifying the fears of parents and children, alike. However nostalgic, Gorey’s work shines a harsh light on society’s anxiety-ridden consciousness and obsession with necrophilic subculture.
Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey beautifully and expertly presents the artist and writer’s framed original illustrations as well as helpful copies of the books in which they were included, so they also can be seen in published context. The finely drawn, black-and-white pen-and-ink images may jog childhood memories, like his famously weird alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) with offbeat entries, such as “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,” “H is for Hector done in by a thug” and “Y is for Yorick whose head was knocked in.” Be forewarned, however, that contemporary media has bombarded us with so many shrieking reports of children in peril that these delicious illustrations may fail to amuse anymore, instead turning sour in your hands.
The curator’s notes assure us that Gorey refrains from showing Yorick’s knocked-in head, but there’s no innocence in the cumulative effect of Gorey’s macabre allusions: children gathered under skeletons in top hats, demons menacing young women, epileptic bicycles and nosebleeds galore. One studies the exhibition for signs of catastrophe or doom, hoping for catharsis, yet it never comes. Like Hitchcock, Gorey never showed the deed, leaving it to your imagination. Still, the drawings are so exquisite they make you shiver, and his clever captions leave you with a smile. In an illustration for The Gilded Bat (1966), an awkward but leaping ballerina is caught midflight over the words: “After Federojenska did a grand jeté into the wings one matinee and was never seen again, Maud took over Oiseau de Glace to great acclaim.”
Your smile may be a bit forced if you don’t consider that Gorey’s work came after the horrors of World War II and were received as a stress relief, mocking the morbid. Back then, the joke was on the skeleton, but in 2010 we seem less able to chuckle at empty eye sockets, looming large as they do from urban graffiti, heavy metal videos and other cultural evidence of increasing divisiveness and fear.
By any standard, Gorey’s drawings have refreshing and timeless electricity; a Harvard graduate, Gorey settled in New York City in 1950 and participated in the city’s postwar artistic renaissance. His books quickly grabbed the spotlight with his perceptive caricatures, dark storylines and quietly humorous wit. Gorey, alongside Maurice Sendak and others, was held in esteem as a fine artist and children’s illustrator by the publishing elite, yet his themes paralleled those of Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, children’s artists and illustrators for the much less acceptable but no less influential EC Comics (later MAD magazine).
Also interesting to see are Gorey’s costume illustrations for the Tony Award-winning 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula (starring Frank Langella), which bring his Edwardian, straight-laced fashion sense to life. The weird, anvil-headed stuffed animals on display were unusual experiments for another of his children’s stories. Some of his rare books commissioned for private consumption are held under glass cases, as well as “illustrated envelopes” for letters, which are rare for Gorey’s use of vivid, cheerful color. Cleverer still are his pop-up books; one marvelous entry titled The Tunnel Calamity is a small, unique one-off: a series of paper cards with cutouts, viewed only through a porthole, illustrate the unexpected appearance of the mythical “Uluus.”
Ten years after his death, Gorey’s cult status makes this exhibit a valuable look at some of the ancestral jewels of lowbrow culture. Gorey may have indeed been just a children’s book illustrator in his heyday, but he came at the macabre from an erudite point of view that has endured, even as the subversive qualities of his visions appear to be growing darker in our time.